A food writer's top menu trends for 2012


American consumers are no longer eating like they’re in crisis mode, as they get used to the new normal of economic uncertainty.

Although generally cautious about spending money, consumers will splurge if they perceive value in their purchases, as illustrated by marked increases in Champagne and Cognac sales this year.

If 2012 is anything like 2011, restaurants will focus on three types of dining occasions. They’ll offer inexpensive foods for guests who want something quick and easy, such as what Mimi’s, Applebee’s, Olive Garden, and Brinker concepts Chili’s and Maggiano’s did in 2011.

They’ll sell more healthful items for the growing segment of the population that watches what it eats, at least some of the time. Many, possibly most, chains did that over the past year, including McDonald’s and The Cheesecake Factory.

And they’ll also offer items for splurging — on either calories or money — for when the occasion warrants it.

Denny’s did that with its indulgent Baconalia menu this past spring. And Wendy’s, Arby’s and Burger King all did it in 2011 with new premium sandwiches.

Those trends will continue in 2012.

Below are some other trends to look for in the coming year. Follow Bret and his culinary trend watching throughout the year at his blog, Food Writer’s Diary.

Pistachios. Consumers are looking for ingredients that are exotic without being threatening. There’s nothing threatening about a pistachio, but we haven’t seen much of it on menus lately.

TCBY got clear indications that this nut was ready for a comeback when the frozen yogurt chain tested pistachio yogurt earlier this year. It did so well that they’re bringing it back as a core item in 2012.

On top of all of that, the same family that owns and successfully marketed pomegranates over the past decade also has major financial interests in pistachios and has turned its attention to the nuts. The planned marketing strategy, targeting men, will play on the results of recent studies indicating that pistachios might improve erectile function.